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THE

NEW MONTHLY MAGAZINE.

THE CONFESSIONS OF WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE.

“ With this key

Sbakspeare unlock'd his heart.” About the year 1583, a licensed company of comedians was first formed in London by her Majesty the Queen. She was at that time in the fullest pride of her womanhood, and walked amid the gallant service of the Sidneys and the Raleighs. But the endowment of this company of poor players turned out, beyond all these, the most graceful feather in her cap. High fellows they were ; poor as a queen's servants may be, but proud as creators of kings and queens have a good right to be. Poverty had no vulgar terrors to them. The strolling player in “ Gil Blas," who soaks his dry crusts in the fresh spring by the road-side, has been pointed to as a perfect picture of human felicity; yet theirs was far more perfect. They had always a spell in their wits, if not in their purses, to conjure up a cup of good wine with, and that is better than water. They drank it, and threw the lees away.

Now among these gentlemen actors there happened to be several from Warwickshire. Richard Burbadge, their great tragedian,-Thomas Green, their best comic actor and writer,— Hart and Heminge,—were all Warwickshire men. It may be supposed what a stir their new reputation must have made in their native county. Think of no one being counted a gentleman that knows not Dick Burbadge!” What little emotions of ambition must not that have given birth to among the youths who heard of it! As for the women, no wonder it soon fell out that there was not “a countrywoman that could dance Sillenger’s Round, but could talk of Dick Burbadge and Tom Green.” But there were mightier results to follow. Green's native place was Stratford-upon-Avon, and at Stratford-upon-Avon young Shakspeare lived :

“ I prattled poesie in my nurse's arms;

And, born where late our Swan of Avon sung,

In Avon's streams we both of us have laved."* As time passed, it had found the pleasant and light-hearted Green in deeper waters, through which his slight sail of mirth and wit was yet bearing him merrily. It is delightful to think that, as he then remembered his young townsman, and invited him to join the troop in London, he may have anticipated, with a beautiful unselfishness, the greater glories that greater genius would achieve. Suddenly, about the year 1586, William Shakspeare left his home at Stratford, his wife and his three infant children, and started for London alone—with what mighty, but indistinct, anticipations !

He joined the Blackfriars Theatre, and became an actor there. It is impossible to suppose that he had not now within his mind gleaming foreshadows of the creations with which he afterwards enriched and

* A prologue spoken by Green. Jan.-VOL, XLIII, NO. CLXIX.

B

scenes.

blessed the world. But their time was not yet come. His marvellous genius, which told him all things, told him to win his way quietly, modestly, unobtrusively. He offered to alter plays, to amend and rewrite

One production was brought to him after another. Fancy the amazement of the poor original authors when their works came back with the touches of that divine hand! It soon fell out that plays altered by him had surer market than plays written by others. Then sprang up envy, even in his modest and gentle way. “ There is an upstart crow," says an ill-natured writer, alluding evidently to Shakspeare, “beautified with our feathers, that, with his tiger's heart, wrapped in a player's hide, supposes he is able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is, in his own conceit, the only Shake-scene in the country.”

This was in 1591. His fellow-actors were now prepared for him. In 1593 he threw off the restraint of labouring for others, and burst out upon the town in the full plenitude of his own power and genius. What he was at the end he was at the beginning. His youth knew no imperfection ; his more advanced years knew no decay. When the bowl indeed was broken, it was broken at the fountain! Never did such a career open upon any of the sons of men as now opened upon young Shakspeare. He did, indeed, shake every scene in the country; and the naked room of every theatre, with the rough blankets that hung therein for curtains, became, under his divine influence, “ a field for monarchs”—and for creatures, greater than monarchs, whose majesties were destined to outlive all chances of the world, and whose glories could never grow dim. Every passion he subdued to his use;—all the vices and all the virtues stood plain before him ;- the world of Nature laid all her treasures at his feet;—the world of spirits revealed her most fantastic beauties and her deepest mysteries ;—the oaks of Ardenne for him put on their green ;-and at his bidding the circling spirits hovered round the ship in a tempest far at sea! But what seemed stranger than all, was the absence of all trace of “ authorship » from these glorious writings. All the men of genius then had their separate characteristics. Shakspeare alone was universal. The various works of his contemporaries had always a certain personal stamp of style, and sometimes, through the shadow of imaginary forms, they painted but the secret workings of their own hearts. He alone stood above all reach of personal recognition. Like a God, and not a man of our infirmity," he called forth a world into separate existence, and set it spinning through the clear heaven of intellect, as one entire and perfect sphere of humanity. When its glorious creatures came successively in sight, men's thoughts were not of Shakspeare.

“ Oh wonder !
How many goodly creatures are there here !
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,

That has such people in't !” And the modest creator sat mean while, it might be, at the Mermaid, or fretted his hour upon the stage at Blackfriars, a gentle and an unassuming man! I have the strongest assurance that we must take the very glory of Shakspeare's genius, its wonderful universality, as the secret of his own want of entire appreciation among his great contemporaries. For surely, beautiful as some of the tributes are that they have paid to him, they cannot have been paid as to the author of the works on which

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two centuries have set their seal as the rarest that ever came from man. Personal affection, as it seems to me, predominates in these tributes, rather than that higher feeling of reverent and loving homage which should have been his, and his alone. Else why, in addition to these, have we no personal records of the life of Shakspeare? No one cared to write about him even the scantiest records of his life, till the affectionate zeal of Betterton took him to Stratford, in the succeeding age, to make inquiries for the poet Rowe, who thereupon built up a biography, which Mr. Malone has laboriously thrown down,-writing a large book about Shakspeare to prove that nothing can be written, and adducing whole troops and squadrons of facts to prove that no fact can be stated with certainty, except those momentous two which are furnished by the register of Stratford and authenticated by Nature herself,—that he was born and died. Nor, in saying this, do I mean to impute any reproach to the contemporaries of Shakspeare. Generosity is natural to the generosity and strength of genius; and I believe them to have been incapable of any mean or sordid jealousy. They are themselves a divine portion of the

sons of memory—the great heirs of fame," and have themselves bequeathed to us a legacy of beautiful and immortal thoughts. They are of the same brood with Shakspeare, though he stands among them more proudly eminent. My meaning simply is, that the genius which gave birth successively to Hamlet, to Falstaff, and to Lear, was too universal for personal reference. Men thought of Nature, not of one of Nature's children. All sense of admiration and wonder of the higher sort went to the great spirit of humanity of which these writings seemed the pure emanation ; and the only tribute which found its way to Shakspeare was one of personal affection. His success, however, as a mere worldly matter, gave him of course a higher place in society; and he no longer visits the Mermaid or the Mitre as a poor player merely, but with the acceptance and esteem of a successful writer. It is characteristic to mark what Ben Jonson says: “ I loved the manis his first fervent expression. “ I do honour to his memory on this side idolatry as much as any,” is a nobler tribute, educed however by a counter reproach. He turns again too, it will be noticed, instantly after, to the more personal attributes of Shakspeare. “He was indeed honest, and of an open and free nature, had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped.The last touch is exquisite. It lets us into many a scene that must have occurred at the taverns then, and may now again be passing in the taverns of Elysium. The wit of Shakspeare must have proved too good a match for the learning of Ben! “It was necessary he should be stopped.” We have no doubt of it.

“Many," says Fuller, “ were the wit combats betwixt him (Shakspeare) and Ben Jonson, which two I behold like a Spanish great galleon and an English man of war. Master Jonson (like the former) was built far higher in learning; solid, but slow in his performances. Shakspeare, with an English man of war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, would turn with all the tides, and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his wit and invention." This is a very lively picture, and makes us long for an earlier Boswell to that earlier and greater Jonson. As it is, however, we have some notion of the footing on which Shakspeare stood. A personal welcome to begin with, his wit to answer all the rest, and not a word from either side to intimate

the divinity of his genius. No one “stands still with awful eye.It is hail fellow, well met-in the theatre alone men bowed before the agonies of Othello's passion, the sublime terrors of Macbeth's imagination—there alone they dreamt with the philosophic Hamlet over the riddle of life, to find in death the sole solution of its mystery!-Is he who now enters the Mermaid with that light and buoyant step the author of these wonderful creations ? . Is that the demi-god of genius, the master of spirits and of men ? See how he enters, unconscious of any superiority, and open and unassuming as a child. It is only as the wine stirs, and the potent Jonson gets rather dictatorial, that those quiet flashes of wit glance forth against him. We may suppose, in addition, the quiet under-current of satire, half pleasant, half scornful, which must have run through the mind of Shakspeare as he saw the younger poets turn to Jonson, as the great arbiter of their fate; waiting for his nod, as the sign of doom ; and leaping for very joy in their hearts, as, out of that oracular chair of his-the town chair of poetry, wisdom, and scholarship—he pronounced them, with affectionate conceit, his

sons, ," and proceeded to " seal them of the tribe of Ben.” But this ran, we dare be sworn, an under-current merely. It never ventured itself to the surface in the shape of severity or scorn. The more learned assumptions of Jonson were those, we are to suppose he twitted him about, making all merry meanwhile, and adding to the sociality by his jests. It is by no means to be concluded from this that Shakspeare disrelished learning, or did not himself admit it in a gallant and airy spirit, and as a social grace. It was only the Jonsonian shape of it he thought a fair subject for quizzing. Hear him speaking for himself at the Mitre in a happy vein of festive wit,

“ Give me a cup of rich Canary wine,

Which was the Mitre's once, and now is mine;
Of which had Horace and Anacreon tasted,

Their lives as well as lines till now had lasted." And the worthy Richard Jackson, whose manuscript hands this down to us, inserts a dramatic direction in the second line at the end of the fourth word,—thus,“ [drinks]." And so the life of Shakspeare passed, -according to the chance records of the time. He wrote ihe mightiest works that have been given to man, and sought no personal association with them. He received noue. As each of these works appeared, they merged, as it were, into the general and universal spirit to which they indeed of right belonged—the spirit of humanity. They became a portion of the great heart of the world. He meanwhile, from whom they first proceeded, continued to walk through life's common way; laying on his heart the lowliest duties; assisting his fellow-actors to pass life merrily as they might; and, -secure of the everlasting existence of those shapes of beauty he had sent into the world to be to it “joys for ever,”for himself, in the estimation of posterity, he betrayed no care. Mr. Lamb has said there is a magnanimity even in authorship. Is it not here? if the term of authorship can indeed be applied to Shakspeare. Posterity has certainly, in his case, taken care that nothing was lost by such noble modesty. Shakspeare is now only less than worshipped ;it is esteemed an honour to speak the tongue he spake ;-and from the period of his death till now men have listened with untired ears to the music of his name, and have done little in their untired hearts but vary the music of his thoughts. His thoughts do we say? Which are his

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